Beginning with truffles, The white ones, from Alba, were shaved over a butter-slathered slice of bread, followed by the black ones, from Irpinia. I sat in the patio of the renowned Neapolitan pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi and watched with wide eyes as my pizza marathon began with an electrifying boom.
He returned later and covered a dish with tomato sauce as black as sumac and reminiscent of Sunday family dinners in this southern Italian city, a handful of basil leaves, and a snowfall of hand-grated Parmesan cheese. After putting a gingham handkerchief around my neck, he topped the arrangement with a deep-fried puff of dough: a typical montanara pizza flipped upside-down, with the sauce on the bottom, to preserve its signature crispy outside and pillowy inside.
I was on the first stop on a pizza pilgrimage across Campania, the Italian area where pizza was originated and where some pizzaioli are now taking it to new heights. One of these innovators is Ciro Oliva, 29, of Concettina, who, at the age of 19, hijacked his family’s delivery business with visions of grandeur. In recent years, Mr. Oliva and other successful restaurant owners in Naples and the surrounding area have embraced the tasting menu, a haute-cuisine indicator of five-star dining, and adapted it to the most ubiquitous and much appreciated food: pizza. Over three days of life-affirming gluttony and joy, I visited Campania’s most renowned pizzerias with tasting menus to determine how the region is elevating its iconic dish.
My journey began at Mr. Oliva’s restaurant in the Sanità neighbourhood of Naples, a rough-and-tumble district centred on a cacophonous market street that has been named one of Time Out’s 51 coolest neighbourhoods in the world this year, a change in fortune attributable in part to the neighborhood’s pizzaiolo. Mr. Oliva, a boisterous and high-energy Vesuvius, is often seen giving out high-fives and praising his pizza and area to the celebrities, dignitaries, and foodies who frequent his restaurant in this dirty but more dynamic section of Naples.
As Marino Niola, a cultural anthropologist from Naples, told me, “Pizza has evolved into a gastronomic masterpiece, but its origins as a meal for the poor ensure that it will always be associated with the notion of food for all.” The tasting menu, however, is an homage to the Michelin guide, which has become the authority on destination restaurants for food-obsessed tourists despite its Francophile criteria emphasising technical precision and service etiquette above plain delectability. Thankfully, Italy’s superpower has always been taste, and pizza is the ultimate evidence.
The next day, I saw Concettina’s morning preparations. A gang of pizzaiolos with Popeye-like forearms rapidly knead dough and place it on wooden pans. In a steel bucket, a chef crushed San Marzano tomatoes by hand to make sauce. Clams, escarole with black olives, and friarielli greens seasoned with pepperoncino sizzled in their respective pots on the stove. The cheeses of the day arrived: fior di latte, smoked provolone, buffalo ricotta, and buffalo mozzarella that was created that morning and erupted with juice as I bit into a piece. Here, pizza as an art form starts.
According to Maestro Pepe, pizza has long been seen as a quick dish. However, this is a slow-food pizza. Superb ingredients, haute cuisine, and revised recipes. Mr. Pepe, the once-teenage assistant to his pizzaiolo father, took over the pizzeria with his brothers after his father’s death, but he split from them in 2012, rebuilding an 18th-century Caiazzo ruin as his own restaurant, with his apartment installed directly above it, where he could cultivate his exacting pizza philosophy. “We knew everything about dough,” he said. However, we had much to learn about ingredients and recipes.